THE BOSTON POLICE DEPARTMENT is currently facing a paradox. On the one hand, many in the police department view the agency as a national model for future policing. On the other hand, many in the community believe the department is in need of reform because of outdated policing strategies that lack accountability and transparency like so many other major police departments across the country. This paradox will continue to be a major barrier to reform unless we take a close look at what’s working and what’s not working in the police department.
Currently, the Boston Police Department is facing a series of challenges involving police legitimacy that may be among the most daunting in the organization’s history. First, the department’s latest police commissioner was fired by Acting Mayor Kim Janey following allegations of intimate partner violence. Second, the former head of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association was arrested for sexually assaulting children after previous allegations were covered up by members of the department. Third, police officers claiming that they worked overtime at the evidence warehouse were recently arrested and charged for participating in an overtime fraud scheme. Finally, the disproportionate number of people of color found in the police department’s gang assessment database has drawn concern among residents demanding more transparency in the identification, selection, and removal of individuals in the database.
This is all coming to the surface at a time when the national conversation following the Black Lives Matter movement is re-imagining the role of police in our communities today. It is clear that police reform is necessary. Based on interviews with a number of current and former police officials, below is a list of essential reforms that can help to transform the Boston Police Department.
Leadership. First and foremost, the Boston Police Department needs new visionary leadership. Although there are individuals within the ranks of the Boston Police Department who could lead the agency though a period of structural reform, there should be a national search for a new police commissioner. Policing must be held to a higher standard, which is more accountable and transparent, and reflects the demographics of Boston to build legitimacy with the residents of the city.
Complaints and misconduct investigations. The Boston Police Department must be more transparent when dealing with complaints against individual officers. While the department’s internal investigations have improved in recent years, past investigations have been tainted by politics or shoddy investigative techniques. The new Office of Police Accountability and Transparency (OPAT), will need to review past allegations of misconduct for all current officers. Because earlier investigations were done in a less rigorous fashion, the agency needs to be skeptical of those early investigations.
Overtime. An ongoing challenge for the police department is to begin to control their overtime budget. A serious analysis of places where overtime can be reduced is essential. This analysis should be done by an external entity such as an advisory review board made up of faculty from local colleges and universities or an independent organization such as the Boston Municipal Research Bureau.
Increased transparency. A major element of police officers accountablity is increased efforts at transparency within the department. The department has made strides in recent years by sharing information about crime in various Boston neighborhoods, but the organization needs to be much more open to sharing information about the activities of its officers. Some areas where increased transparency is needed include the following: body worn camera footage; disciplinary records of officers found guilty of misconduct; use of force information, such as the characteristics of those subject to use of force; the race and ethnicity of persons stopped and/or arrested; and the criteria for individuals included and removed from the department’s gang database.
Police unions. The Boston Police Department has historically had difficulties implementing policing reforms, in large part due to the strength of the local police unions. Currently, four police unions represent its officers. These organizations protect their members from unfair treatment by the administration of the department and have played an important role in the past. Unfortunately, these unions have slowed or inhibited reforms rather than working with the mayor and the Boston Police Department command staff to implement reforms that benefit Boston residents. The current leadership of the four Boston Police Unions need to step forward and work with the future mayor and police commissioner to implement the changes recommended by the Mayor’s Police Reform Task Force and additional reforms that may be necessary to improve police-community relations. If they refuse to support these and other reform efforts, the next mayor and police commissioner may have to seek judicial power to push for the necessary reforms.
Community policing strategies. Following the national conversation on the need for and proper role of the police in our communities, programs that build trust between the police and the community are essential. Programs like the Peace Walks, which were suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Social Justice Task Force, which was developed under Commissioner Edward Davis and continued under Commissioner William Evans, provided a forum for the police and community to come together and discuss current issues. The Bureau of Community Engagement (BCE) needs additional resources particularly at time when trust in the police has declined in Boston and other parts of the country.
Recruitment and retention. Numerous law enforcement agencies across the country are facing challenges recruiting and retaining officers from diverse backgrounds. At the national level, these challenges have been exacerbated by the killing of unarmed people of color by police officers. In order to address these challenges, it is important for police departments to engage in personal outreach efforts to recruit candidates by officers they know and trust, update existing curriculum and training offered at the academy, mentor and support officers for promotional exams, and identify and address challenges faced by some officers in terms of any mental, physical, and/or social support required to retain officers.
Promotion. Whether it is accurate or not there is a widespread belief in the Boston Police Department that nepotism is rampant in the promotional system. Officers believe that if they speak out against a program or policy, it could impact future promotional opportunities. In the past, the department leadership has tried to update assessment processes for promotion, but these reforms have been criticized by the police unions. In terms of promotional assessment, the Boston Police Department is far behind many other police agencies. To get the best leaders in the organization and to represent the diversity of the city across all ranks, the department will need to update its promotional process which may include a reconsideration of the use of Civil Service.
Jack McDevitt is the director of the Institute of Race and Justice and a professor at Northeastern University. Janice Iwama is an assistant professor at American University. This essay summarizes a white paper written by McDevitt and Iwama following a series created by the Boston Area Research Initiative, a network of research institutions and experts. The series seeks to provide Boston’s next mayor with the perspective of members of the academic community.